To refer to One Thousand and One Nights as Arabian Nights — a title which originates with the first English translation of the French edition — is a wild but telling simplification. It was originally a Persian collection of stories, likely with Sanskrit influence, which reached the Arab world around the 9th century, and continued to add and update stories in both Syrian and Egyptian versions all the way through the medieval period into the 18th and 19th centuries. This was even after the first French edition, which was translated and compiled by Antoine Galland, a collector of relics on behalf of the French aristocracy and the French East India Company. He also took the liberty of adding the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba, related to him by the storyteller Hanna Diyab. For 300 years, Western translations and adaptations have continued to evolve to reflect shifting narrative conventions and fads in children’s book illustration and animation. The undefined boundaries of this millifold narrative (partly the authentic result of its long-ago and faraway origins, but also the result of the liberties this remoteness facilitates) allow Westerners to project a fantasy of mystery and possibility, a displaced sense of, well, longing, onto the imagined Orient for which the book stands.

In George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, Dr. Alithea Binnie (a mannered, refined Tilda Swinton) is introduced on a “Scheherazade Air” flight en route to a mythology and folklore conference in Istanbul. A narratologist, she delivers a very Dan Brown PowerPoint presentation about how stories render “existence coherent,” explaining the world before being supplanted by science and “reduced to metaphor.” She is by this point in front of a slide depicting comic book superheroes. If Miller is parroting the line that Marvel movies are our “modern myths,” he’s doing it with ironic air quotes. Miller, now 77, began his career in the Outback with the junkyard world-building of the Mad Max films, and the longing in this film is first and foremost his own, for personal and idiosyncratic storytelling that stands in contrast to the exhausted wonder of our synergized, unimaginative age’s intellectual property.

From Three Thousand Years of Longing

And so the plot of this fanciful, risky, expressively cheesy film kicks off when Alithea finds a lamp in a marketplace and, cleaning it in the sink with an electric toothbrush, dislodges a djinn (Idris Elba), who shrinks to human size and teaches himself English with her hotel television. As the cloistered, cautious academic equivocates on her three wishes, he unfolds, Interview with the Vampire-style, a life story marked by the anguish of thwarted love and romance of period splendor, from Sheba’s court to the seraglio of Suleiman the Magnificent to Stamboul. (Elba is, Cats aside, an actor incapable of appearing foolish. Here his arresting mentholated rasp is an effective, enchanting counterpoint to the djinn’s all-too-human fumblings.) Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the film takes an immortal main character as an excuse to riff on pre-cinematic modes of narrative enchantment, here via nested tales encompassing distortions, digressions, dead ends, unreliable narrators, and incidental wonders — all musky with the perfume of what Alithea rhapsodically calls “the Levant.”

Miller’s thin-spread passion project consists in large part of scenes of his only two name actors sitting side by side on a hotel bed in matching white complimentary bathrobes. The rest of the 3,000 years are, frankly, janky as hell, very brightly lit and marked by underbudgeted CGI. But this is also appealing, because Miller, like Robert Zemeckis, is interested in the plasticity of new moviemaking technology. This makes the use of CG visuals in Three Thousand Years paradoxically tactile, like with the effect of viscous, glossy liquid glass encasing a concubine’s forbidden books. Making Mad Max: Fury Road with largely practical effects, Miller astonished viewers by not leaning on CGI as a replacement for the physical world. Here, using CGI more excessively as a magical or at least unreal transformation of the physical world, he again offers an alternative to the digital automation of modern spectacle filmmaking.

From Three Thousand Years of Longing

There is the sense here of a director pushing all his chips to the center and spinning his entire personal cosmology into a movie — a grand gesture not entirely backed by a matching intellectual rigor. Three Thousand Years of Longing offers frequent speeches about the Importance of Storytelling, pop-scholarly platitudes on the level of Alithea’s opening talk. (It does not help that Swinton has previously starred in a far smarter centuries-spanning mock-epic about love and narrative freedom: Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.) As King Solomon seduces the Queen of Sheba by strumming a lute that gradually grows into an entire self-playing orchestra, Miller cuts from the symphony to a close-up of the Queen gulping nervously, hungrily, like a cartoon wolf — a familiar hack gesture that undercuts any transporting lyricism.

Yet the film’s sheer unfashionability works in its favor. Accompanying Alithea back to London, the djinn is overwhelmed by the cacophony of sound and radio waves hurtling through the atmosphere of the modern world. Though this is indicative of the film’s othering gaze (the white noise problem somehow does not afflict him in contemporary Istanbul), it’s hard to be unsympathetic to the sentimental nostalgia. Miller’s film is in the same all-but-obsolete imaginative lineage as the Harryhausen stop-motion animation of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad or the in-camera Technicolor magic of the 1940 Thief of Bagdad. (A subplot about a sultan’s lipophile son likewise feels, for better or worse, like something out of a different era, with a different calculus about exoticization versus sensitivity.) Let 77-year-old filmmakers make passionate and bewitchingly awkward box office turkeys! It’s quite moving to see the apparatus of 21st-century blockbuster filming bent to the purposes of such a creaky, extraneous contraption. Three Thousand Years of Longing is a cloudbuster.

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Three Thousand Years of Longing opens in theaters August 26.

Mark Asch

Mark Asch is the author of the New York Movies volume of the Close-ups...

One reply on “Riff on One Thousand and One Nights Longs for a Bygone Era of Filmmaking”

  1. This plot, what ever it’s present title, is a novela written by A.S.Byatt, titled the Jinn in the Nightingale’s Eye in a book of her short stories of the same name. She, the author of Possession and Elementals, a Booker Prize-winner and master of the modern fairytale. I cannot imagine how or why the author hasn’t been credited. Somewhere, someone has been seriously remiss.

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